Imposter Syndrome

Kelly Villanueva
Feb 28 · 5 min read

This isn’t a technical security post. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about joining a sorority and blocking out a tennis coach / convicted sex offender, and how those experiences helped shape my security mindset.

FYI —This post could be considered triggering to individuals sensitive to sexual abuse.


The imposter syndrome

I am not an imposter
I’ve been told that I’m an imposter by more men in the security industry than I can count, but I don’t listen to them. They are background noise because I’m mentally tough. As a relatively new red team operator, I’ve struggled staying confident in my abilities, but by acknowledging my technical and interpersonal struggles, I can attack my insecurities and build the career I want.

Tip #1: If you want to change your world, first, change your thoughts. Be positive.

I am an imposter
Okay fine, I’m an imposter. I’m a business school sorority girl who is in over her head in cybersecurity. It’s okay though — competitive tennis taught me to be an actress. My imposter syndrome is my little secret that I’ll keep to myself. I don’t want people knowing that I doubt my abilities because that could affect their perception of me.

Esse Quam Videri

My first intense experience with the imposter syndrome was joining a sorority — The University of Miami Chapter of DPhiE . I didn’t feel like I belonged to this organization, especially after frat guys asked how I got in since I “wasn’t that hot.” Just like my career in security, I felt different than my peers, and at first, I let other people decide my self-worth and role in an organization.

Delta Phi Epsilon Philanthropy Event — October 2015

Our sorority motto, “Esse quam videri” is Latin for “to be rather than to seem to be.” I found it amusing. The same organization that I didn’t feel like I belonged in, told me to just be myself, and as I progressed through college, I internalized this message to mean “fool everyone, especially yourself.” I learned to remove negativity from my self-talk and control the message.

Eventually, I forged a sense of belonging and became DPhiE’s Vice President. Amazing things happened when I stopped letting others dictate my place in a community.


Mental toughness

*Walk up to the baseline, preparing to serve in a tennis match*
*Bounce* You have a great kick serve,
*Bounce* You got this point,
*Bounce* Focus.

I double faulted. I looked over my shoulder and saw old tennis coach, who also happened to be an old family friend — and a convicted sex offender — sitting in the grass, watching his son a few courts over. During the short break between points, memories of traveling with him to Australia, him holding my waist tightly during private tennis lessons, and reading in the newspaper about the numerous girls he assaulted flooded my head. It was overwhelming.

I had two options:

1) Call an umpire over and request they call the police. My tennis coach would be headed to prison soon, and he was not allowed to be around children, as this violated his probation. Waiting for the police could negatively impact my headspace and weaken my ability to focus on the tennis match.
2) Ignore him.

I choose Option #2. I told myself to think about it what I can control. I can control my thoughts, my mindset, and my actions. Keep your head in the game.

Walk up to the baseline, preparing to start a new point* Breathe in, breathe out.
*Bounce* New point,
*Bounce* You’re being super strategic with your shot selection today,
*Bounce* Let’s do the 3–1 crossover again.

During a match, I used this ritual. No matter what happened in the previous point, I would walk up to the baseline, bounce the ball three times and find focus through self encouragement. For example:

● You have a great kick serve
● You’re being strategic with shot selection
● You’re playing great tennis
● Your forehand is killer today

It didn’t matter if I had just double faulted three points in a row or was triggered by seeing my prior coach / sex offender; I still told myself a compliment to convince my subconscious and reinforce positive habits. Life is made up of challenging moments like these. Throughout my tennis career, I received five sportsmanship awards for exhibiting mental toughness despite mentally unstable opponents. To be emotionally strong, I needed to focus my efforts on factors that I can control.

Tennis Worksheet March — 2007

I won the match, and after, I went on to play #1 singles on my high school’s varsity team as a freshman. We won the Northern California state championship that year. Although I eventually stopped playing tennis competitively, I coached for a few years and reflect fondly on my tennis memories.

Staying with tennis required mental toughness and focusing on factors within my control. Working in security requires the same mental toughness, which has been an instrumental part of my journey in the field.


Attacking weakness

Thinking about factors outside of my control is exhausting. Instead, I channel my energy into changing factors that I can control — my thoughts, attitude, and perception.

Rate yourself against metrics such as the following:

Tennis Worksheet — March 2007

● Consistency of focus
● Resilience
● Self-reliance
● Self-confidence
● Patience
● Optimistic outlook
● Responsibility for behavior
● Ability to cope effectively with adversity
● Indifference to presence
● Emotionally flexible
● Body language

Which areas do you see room for improvement? Focus on the top four, and state your weakness in a positive form. For example:

● I’m optimistic in my future as a security professional.
● I’m patient in my reverse engineering skill development.
● My body language is positive and strong.
● I’m very coachable, and I learn things very fast.

Tell yourself these “lies” all day, every day. At least 15 times a day. Set reminders. Soon, you’ll start to trick yourself into believing them. I swear, it works. With that confidence, the world is your oyster. Through the power of self-affirmation, I became a red team operator.


I rewrote my narrative. I was mentally resilient. I changed my world by changing my thoughts.

Kelly Villanueva

Written by

Security consultant at SpecterOps | Mostly harmless 🌎

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